Published on Apr 15, 2015 on Rappler.com with Zachary Abuza

With more than 200 Southeast Asians confirmed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and with estimates of up to 500, including family, governments across the region are considering enacting a slew of new counter-terrorism measures. These are both ineffective and counter-productive to addressing the serious ISIS problem.

Security forces in Malaysia and Indonesia have been very proactive in dealing with the threat of ISIS, working assiduously to prevent people from traveling overseas. In that they have been successful: one ISIS webpage warned Southeast Asian recruits to not travel through Malaysia, calling it “suicidal.” Indonesian counter-terrorism officials speak of a backlog of recruits because the logistical network is being so effectively targeted. In recent weeks, Indonesian police have arrested several key funders who have financed the travel of militants. Cooperation with Turkish authorities led to the arrest of 16 Indonesians seeking to cross into Syria. Malaysia has already detained more than 120 people for fundraising, recruitment and fighting with ISIS. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been able to engage in proactive security measures within the existing laws effectively.

This has not stopped them from using the ISIS issue to expand their powers. The Malaysian parliament recently passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA); while the government has tabled another measure, the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Bill (Foreign Fighters Bill), which would allow authorities to suspend or revoke passports of both Malaysians and foreigners if they are suspected of engaging in or supporting terrorism while abroad. POTA allows Malaysian authorities to hold a suspected terrorist for two years without trial without any judicial review. This harkens back to the draconian ISA, scrapped in 2012, and effectively gives investigating officers unchecked powers, even possible torture, to gain evidence.

Indonesian authorities are similarly debating a new counter-terrorism law to replace their existing 2003 legislation that was passed in the immediate aftermath of the October 2002 Bali bombing. Indonesian National Police Inspector-General Tito Karnavian said, “Our legislation today is not sufficient to cover and to prevent and to investigate those supporting ISIS.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is also considering issuing an interim emergency government regulation (a perppu) to deter Indonesians from joining ISIS. Although a final decision has not been made, it could include a provision to revoke citizenship revoked for people who travel to join ISIS. The perppu includes bans on verbal support for IS, traveling overseas to support terrorist groups, engaging in terrorist activity abroad and propagating terrorist ideology, loosely defined.

Real concerns exist about the abuse of these laws. They offer little in the way of oversights and protections. They also can be misused for political ends.

Malaysia’s disturbing spate of arrests under the controversial Sedition Act and the politicization of the Special Branch illustrates the costs of laws that are used to silence opponents rather than genuinely protect national security. Neither country has provided adequate justifications why these measures are necessary or addressed the potential human rights problems that may arise from the abuse of these laws.

This approach of draconian laws is wrong. Beyond the potential for abuse, the main shortcoming is that these laws will do little to counter ISIS’ appeal. They will not fundamentally undercut ISIS’ ability to revitalize the splinters of the decimated Jemaah Islamiyah network and to bring in new recruits from entirely new demographics.

Holistic approach

A more productive holistic approach is necessary. A key starting point is to undercut the recruitment efforts at their source.

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on March 17, 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)'s al-Furqan Media allegedly shows ISIS fighters raising their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the trademark Jihadists flag at an undisclosed location in the Anbar province. Al-Furqan Media/AFP

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on March 17, 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s al-Furqan Media allegedly shows ISIS fighters raising their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the trademark Jihadists flag at an undisclosed location in the Anbar province. Al-Furqan Media/AFP

As ISIS is a social media phenomenon, it has to be confronted in this way.

Its recruitment videos and marketing are slick; offering far higher production value across every conceivable media platform than any ham-fisted government counter-narrative. Simply blocking websites or demanding YouTube take down videos is doomed to failure; there are too many easy technical workarounds. Indonesian authorities recently reversed the blocking of 22 sites due to freedom of speech issues. Reducing appeals involve taking on the narrative head-on using the very same mediums.

Recently, Indonesia arrested a disillusioned returnee from ISIS. Rather than arrest him, he should be actively promoted in discussion forums, social media and being allowed to lecture at mosques and prisons. Other disillusioned ISIS vets have been squandered by inept security forces, who prefer additional powers.

The governments also need to confront growing religious intolerance within their own societies and the policies that create the context for ISIS to be so appealing. The region’s growing religious intolerance makes it fertile ground for ISIS’ virulent practice of takfir. The radical anti-Shia-ism and sectarianism of ISIS resonates across Southeast Asia. ISIS’s brutal attacks against the Shia are inspiring attacks where there is a similar desire to “cleanse” their religion.

The governments’ declaration of sects “deviant,” as in Indonesia’s 2008 decree, has provided carte blanche to fuel hatred. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace has reported a threefold increase in the number of attacks on Shia between 2012 and 2013 in the region.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, between 2008-2013, some 62 Ahmadiyah mosques were attacked or destroyed, 45 of which were forcibly closed in Indonesia alone. Malaysia’s record is not much better, with the country ranked as ‘highly restrictive’ on religious freedom by the Pew Center and institutionalized bans on Shia well established. While the Philippines is confronted by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front, which has pledged bai’at to ISIS, and is poised to capitalize should the Bangsamoro peace process fail.

There has been little done to change mindsets of intolerance. A new survey of high school students in Jakarta found low levels of support for ISIS (7%) though awareness of the group was growing. More disturbing, was increased intolerance of sects like Shia and the Amadiyah; 43.8% said that they should be banned. Ironically, the same religious institutions used to “treat” members of these “deviant sects” are the same that are charged with disengaging militants.

Part of this problem lies with the embedded intolerance within religious authorities, who are promoting division rather than dignity. Even Malaysia’s Special Branch has acknowledged that religious authorities are sympathetic to ISIS, highlighting that the problem with ISIS lies less with the laws but with changing the attitudes of those implementing them.

Targeted action is required. The governments should devote more resources for disengagement programs in prison, which are some of ISIS’ most fertile recruiting grounds Indonesia’s program has long been under-funded, but it is at critical juncture today, especially as some 200 members of JI are due to be released in the coming few years. Malaysia’s prisons do not meet international standards and similarly serve as breeding grounds of anger. It will only get worse should POTA be abused for political purposes.

The threat of ISIS is real. The chlorine bomb in Jakarta is indicative of ISIS’ brutal ideology and bloodlust. Governments already have significant powers and tools at their disposal for effective law enforcement. Indeed, it was Jakarta’s lack of an ISA-type law and their reliance on the courts that so effectively delegitimized JI.

Simply giving security forces more powers that can be abused while ignoring the context of ISIS recruitment and sources of ISIS’ appeal will do little to stem the movement. In fact the new laws will create a false sense of security.